Though it has received minimal attention in the West, last week Putin completed his 15th visit to China where he held intensive talks with the Chinese leadership led by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
This came directly after Putin met Xi Jinping at the immediately preceding Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Tashkent. According to Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, whom Putin also met in Beijing, Xi Jinping has met Putin more often than he has met any other foreign leader.
On the Russian side the talks between Putin and the Chinese leadership in Beijing did not involve Putin alone. Putin’s meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing started as a one-to-one meeting with just the two leaders and their interpreters present. It was then expanded to include top officials and ministers of both the Russian and Chinese governments.
Whilst we do not know the details of the topics which were discussed – and Putin and Xi Jinping avoided discussing them in open press conferences – the information we have suggests that the talks were very detailed and very wide-ranging:
“Documents signed include a declaration between Russia and China on raising the role of international law, intergovernmental agreements on cooperation on joint implementation of a programme to develop, produce, commercialise and organise after-sales service of a wide-bodied, long-haul plane and development of further models based on this plane, cooperation on a programme to build a heavy helicopter, cooperation on technology protection measures related to work together on exploring and using outer space for peaceful purposes and developing and operating launch systems and ground-based space infrastructure, and an appendix to an agreement on cooperation on building a nuclear power plant on Chinese territory and on Russia according China a state loan.
Other agreements concern coordination of joint efforts within international groups and organisations, cooperation in the forestry sector, innovation sector, securities market regulation, insurance, cooperation on localising production of high-speed rolling stock and railway equipment on Russian territory, cooperation in the oil and gas sector, cooperation between the two countries’ media outlets, and sports sector cooperation.
Also signed was a joint declaration between the Eurasian Economic Union Commission and the Chinese Ministry of Commerce on the official start of talks on an agreement on trade and economic cooperation between the Eurasian Economic Union and the People’s Republic of China.”
The last paragraph makes clear that the Chinese not only received Putin as the President of Russia. They also received him as the de facto leader of the Eurasian Economic Union, an organisation the Western media never reports about and which as far as the Western media is concerned might as well not exist.
The official communiques say nothing about defence and foreign policy discussions but we can sure they took place and that the full range of international relations – Ukraine, Syria, North Korea, the South China Sea, arms control, defence etc – were discussed, as were the various projects for building a new global financial architecture independent of the US and the dollar, which the Chinese especially are pressing ahead with. Almost certainly the reason why the Russian and Chinese leaders did not engage with the international media following their discussions is because they did not want to be asked questions about the discussions they had on these topics.
I do not know of cooperation between any two other Great Powers in the world today which is so close. Contrary to what is often said, cooperation between Russia and China today at a political and military-strategic level is very much closer today than it was in the days of their formal alliance in the 1950s, when meetings between Soviet and Chinese leaders were infrequent and frequently tense.
Whilst economic and technological relations between the two countries are still lagging, they are – as the communiques show – developing rapidly. By way of example and contrary to some media claims, the two countries are forging ahead with their pipeline projects, which are in active construction. Claims by some Western and pro-Western Russian liberal commentators that they will never be built are wishful thinking.
Beyond these bilateral questions there are the greater plans which Putin discussed at SPIEF 2016 for the Eurasian Economic Union and China to conclude free trade agreements with each other, with Russia and China working to merge the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and the Chinese-led Silk Road Project into a single whole as part of their joint “Greater Eurasia” project in which they ultimately want to involve Europe too.
All this is only the visible tip of the iceberg of Russian-Chinese relations. As I have discussed previously, there are certain to be scores of secret agreements between the Chinese and the Russians we know nothing about: to share intelligence (including for example signals intelligence and data from satellites) and to coordinate foreign policy and for defence cooperation including technology sharing. We know for example that the Russians and the Chinese have representatives at each others’ command headquarters and that recently they carried out in Moscow a joint command exercise involving joint operation of their respective anti-ballistic missile defences, something the US would never do at such a level with any of its allies.
Though we know little about some of these agreements, it is possible to make educated guesses about some of them. In terms of defence technology cooperation the Chinese for example are known to rely heavily on Russian liquid fuel technology for their rocket engines both for their ballistic missiles and for their space programme, which in general appears to rely heavily on Russian technology, even for design of space vehicles. As it happens, the information from the latest summit meeting in Beijing suggests that the Russians and the Chinese could even be taking their first steps towards merging their respective space programmes. The Chinese also seem to depend heavily on the Russians for their gas turbine technology including for their military aircraft engines. In fact there are rumours – always denied – that Chinese military aircraft projects draw heavily on Russian technical advice. The Russians for their part are said to rely on the Chinese increasingly for electronic subcomponents for some of their systems and there are persistent rumours – also always denied – that they have looked to the Chinese for help with development of their aerial drones.
In foreign policy coordination it seems fairly clear that there are agreements for Russia to take the lead in the Syrian conflict and for China to take the lead in any matter concerning North Korea, with the two countries however always supporting each other’s positions in each conflict.
It is a certainty – and Putin has recently confirmed as much – that the Russians and the Chinese also talk to each continuously about all other international questions and take care to coordinate their positions in respect of them. They have certainly done so for example in relation to such questions as the Ukrainian conflict (where China has quietly recognised Crimea as a part of Russia), the Iranian nuclear agreement, the conflict between China and the US in the South China Sea (where Russia backs China) and China’s claim for unification with Taiwan (ditto).
Importantly, we do not know the identities of the individuals in the Russian and Chinese governments who on a day to day basis conduct these contacts, though obviously the embassies of the two countries in each others’ capitals are heavily involved. However it is striking that the two countries’ foreign ministers – Sergey Lavrov and Wang Yi – do not appear to be involved. They scarcely ever meet with each other or visit each other’s countries, which suggests that the two countries’ leaderships have, quite intentionally, assigned them the task of dealing with relations with third countries and not with anything to do with the relationship Russia and China have forged with each other. Apparently this is dealt with at a different and more senior level.
The best guess is that in the Russian case the official who has day to day management of Russia’s relations with China is Sergey Ivanov, Putin’s powerful Chief of Staff and head of Russia’s Presidential Administration, who appears to have frequent meetings with Chinese officials.
In all essentials this is an extremely close alliance between two Great Powers. It is sometimes said that because it is not underpinned by ideology but rests purely on self-interest that somehow makes it brittle. My own view on the contrary is that the fact that the alliance is based purely on self-interest and not on ideology or sentiment – so that the two allies have no illusions about each other – makes it deeper and stronger.
The alliance does however have one special feature which in the modern world makes it unique. Most countries when they forge alliances with other countries go out of their way to publicise the fact. By contrast the reason why the alliance between Russia and China is not widely recognised for what it is, is because of the extraordinary lengths to which both Great Powers go to deny the fact of its existence.
The reason for this is not difficult to see. Alliances tend to get defined by their enemies. The Russian-Chinese alliance is clearly pitted against the other great alliance system of the modern world: that of the US and its allies. Both the Russians and the Chinese however want to maintain at least for the moment the fiction that they and the US and its allies are not enemies or even adversaries but are “partners”. Though with the crises in Ukraine and the South Sea China Sea this fiction is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain, it remains important to both the Russians and the Chinese to preserve it so that they can maintain a political dialogue not just with the US but also with the US’s allies, especially Germany and Japan, as well as a place in the international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF which have been historically dominated by the US.
It is precisely for this reason that neocon hardliners in the US like Senator McCain, who want to preserve the US’s geostrategic dominance, want on the contrary to tear down all pretences and to define Russia and China openly and clearly as the US’s enemies. That way they hope to reimpose tighter block discipline within the Western alliance and end any prospect of US allies becoming involved in Russian and Chinese projects like China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the Russian/Chinese “Greater Eurasia” and Silk Road projects. They also hope that way to minimise or even exclude Russian and Chinese influence from US dominated international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. Of course defining China as a US enemy also plays into the hands of protectionists in the US like Donald Trump, who would like to use that as an excuse to close the US market to Chinese goods.
Beyond the very complex relations Russia and China have with the West – which for the moment it is in their interest to keep complex – the Russians and the Chinese also have to consider the effect the public acknowledgement of their alliance would have on third powers such as India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Iran, which have had a history of conflicts with either Russia or China. By concealing the fact of their alliance the Russians and the Chinese can each preserve their historic relations with old friends – in Russia’s case with India, South Korea and Vietnam, in China’s case with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran – which might otherwise become alarmed at the public announcement that a country they had always assumed was a friend had now formally become an ally of a former foe with whom they might still have a prickly relationship.
Last but not least, concealing the fact of their alliance for the Russians and the Chinese comes with the added dividend that influential US analysts and commentators such as former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul can remain in denial about it. A Russian-Chinese alliance being for such people a possibility too horrible to contemplate, the fact the Russians and the Chinese don’t announce it means that such people can continue to deny it even as evidence for it piles up around them. That suits the Russians and the Chinese perfectly, since it ensures that these people won’t try to mobilise US opinion against them.
The result is that though Russian and Chinese officials occasionally let slip that they see each other as allies – as Putin did the other day – in general they try to conceal the fact, pretending that their countries are not formal allies at all even though that is in fact precisely what they are. Thus in place of “alliance” they prefer to use the euphemism of “strategic partnership” or increasingly “grand strategic partnership” to describe their relationship.
It is also partly to conceal the fact of their alliance that the Russians and the Chinese have weaved a complex web of organisations around their alliance of which the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the BRICS are just two. Such organisations enable the Russians and the Chinese to create institutions like the BRICS Bank or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as multilateral ventures which are not targeted at the West, as it would not be possible for them to do if they were openly allied to each other.
These organisations also enable the Russians and the Chinese to engage countries like Brazil, India, Iran and Pakistan in a friendly way, treating them as equal partners, as they seek to extend the influence of their alliance into places like southern Africa and Latin America where it might not otherwise reach.
It is a common trope that the world today is moving from a unipolar world dominated by one superpower – the US – towards a multipolar world, where there will be a more complex interchange between rival centres of power.
Whilst with the rise of India I think that is basically true, I do not think the terms unipolar or multipolar properly describe the world as it is now. Rather I think the world today is basically bipolar, just as it was during the Cold War, with two great international alliances facing off against each other just as they did then. Whereas during the Cold War it was the US and the Western alliance which faced off against the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies, today it is the US and the Western alliance versus the Eurasian alliance that has crystallised around Russia and China, which also includes certain Central Asian states that were formerly part of the USSR and which may shortly also include Iran.
That the duel between these two great alliances, unlike the Cold War, is being conducted mainly in the shadows and without the ideological dimension that marked the Cold War does not mean it is any less real. On the contrary it is not only real but is taking place all the time and as it is happening it is reshaping our world.